The Northwest Film Center’s retrospective of the films of German director Wim Wenders comes to an immensely satisfying conclusion this weekend, including a rare chance to see the expanded (and quite expansive) director’s cut of perhaps his most ambitious effort.
With Wenders’ earlier films, which have screened over the last several weeks, we’ve seen him come to terms with his own cinephilia, incorporating references to classic Hollywood through style, narrative, and the casting of icons such as Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray. In “Wrong Move,” “Kings of the Road,” and “The American Friend,” Wenders found his voice. In “The State of Things,” he expressed his disdain for what Hollywood had become, but he rediscovered his appreciation for American landscapes in “Paris, Texas.”
The titles playing this weekend capture a crucial pivot in Wenders’ perspective, from one looking back at the history of cinema and of Europe to one peering forward into a future fraught with peril and promise.
“Notebook on Cities and Clothes” (Friday, 7 p.m.), released in 1989, could be considered a minor entry in Wenders’ oeuvre. It’s a “diary film” that began as a commission by the Centre George Pompidou to do a documentary portrait of Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. As such, it’s of interest to followers of haute couture, but the film ultimately becomes a meditation on the changing nature of filmmaking at the dawn of the digital age. Using handheld video cameras for the portions of the film shot in Japan, and luscious 35mm cinematography (by his regular collaborator, Robby Müller) for the Parisian-set segments, Wenders juxtaposes the two and asks questions about the nature of the digital image and how it offers a new aesthetic.
The title “Notebook on Cities and Clothes” calls to mind the Talking Heads album “More Songs About Buildings and Food.” Like David Byrne, Wenders is an artist who has only grown more curious and open to change—technological, cultural, and aesthetic—as he’s gotten older.
With “Until the End of the World” (Saturday, 5 p.m.), Wenders expressed these concerns in a fiction film—in fact, a science fiction film—utilizing his favorite narrative trope, the road movie. But this is no ordinary road movie. It’s a globe-spanning odyssey, filmed in nine countries on four continents during most of the year 1990. The movie is set in 1999, as a nuclear satellite threatens to crash apocalyptically to earth, and follows Frenchwoman Claire (Solveig Dommartin from “Wings of Desire”) as she pursues a mysterious figure (William Hurt) from Paris to Berlin to Lisbon and ultimately, after several more stops, the Australian outback.
The movie’s vision of future tech features now-familiar stuff like videophones, GPS-style navigation systems, and very small cars. But its most meaningful device is the peculiar camera Hurt’s character totes, one designed, we eventually learn, to capture mental images that can be viewed by the blind. It’s a sort of perfect cinema, the ultimate virtual-reality machine, capable even of broadcasting our secret knowledge and forgotten dreams. The final 90 minutes of this nearly five-hour director’s cut amount to a fascinating metaphorical meditation on the joys and pitfalls of this level of immersion. I bet David Foster Wallace liked this flick.
The running time may make it sound like a chore to watch, and even the originally released, truncated version was a chore for some at 158 minutes. But if you can relax into Wenders’ absurdist-travelogue mentality, it’s a long, strange trip well worth taking. And it’s fascinating to watch him continue to play with the possibilities of digital filmmaking and ponder its implications.
This isn’t to say that he’s left the past behind altogether, though. Hurt’s character is named Samuel Farber, which feels like a reference to both Samuel Fuller and influential film critic Manny Farber. Max von Sydow and Jeanne Moreau, two icons of 1960s European art cinema, play Farber’s parents. And Wenders’ frequent leading man, Rudiger Vogler, tags along on this world tour as a sharp-dressing, fedora-sporting private eye.
Instead of relying on a soundtrack of classic American pop music, as he did in many early films, Wenders assembled an all-star roster of contemporary, forward-looking artists to contribute original songs. The presence of Talking Heads, Patti Smith, U2, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, and more helped to make the soundtrack to “Until the End of the World” more commercially successful than the film itself, which crashed and burned at the American box office. The movie cost over $20 million to make and earned less than $1 million in the U.S., which may explain why it stands as the last narrative film of this scope he would make. (The upcoming “Sumbergence,” starring Alicia Vikander and James Marsden, may change that.)
1999’s “Buena Vista Social Club” (Sunday, 4:30 p.m.) was a key film in Wenders’ transition from a narrative to documentary focus. Especially worth revisiting in these days of renewed American engagement with Cuba, this Oscar-nominated doc captures the process of assembling a group of venerated Cuban musicians to record an album in Havana. It’s an utterly charming, musically delightful, and intimate portrait, and it was shot, naturally, on a digital Sony Betacam.
“Wim Wenders: Portraits from Along the Road” comes full circle by closing out with a selection of his earliest short films (Sunday, 7 p.m.). Some of these are of interest to completists only, but as a whole, the 90-minute program sheds light on the concerns and fascinations that molded this still-vital (at 70) artist. He continues to push into the future with things like the 3-D dance documentary “Pina,” while remaining connected to his photographic roots with things like the Oscar-nominated “Salt of the Earth.” He doesn’t show any sign of slowing down anytime soon, so there should be plenty of material for another retrospective just a little further on down that road.